Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Comforts of Food




Sometimes, I write a column for the paper that is deemed insufficiently food-centric; this is yet another instance.

Here is the original version of today's piece, before I was asked to revise it and then the revision was edited. I think it's worth sharing because it shows far better the depth of my grief, the desperate need for comfort and distraction. If nothing else, it's important to me to publish it.

Is half of it about my pussycats, rather than about food specifically? Yes. To my mind, that doesn't mean it's not about food, and the various ways that food provided solace when I needed some. I also think there's useful information about my cats' health, and I wanted to offer some public thanks for the care I/we received. And beyond all of that, I smile when I remember hearing someone say I'm "hilarious," and I need as many smiles as I can get, right now.

But, enough blathering. On to the story as I want to tell it ....


This column is going to start out with tears (mine, at least), but don’t worry: it will end with some comfort. Comfort food, that is.

In January, my seven-month-old kitten, Graycie, died very suddenly from feline infectious peritonitis. I’d never heard of it before that day, and wish I were still that ignorant; it’s almost always fatal, especially among the young and the old who don't have the resources to fight it. It was devastating to lose someone so little, and with no notice or opportunity to try to prepare. Graycie and our other cat, Hobbesie, had been inseparable. He was never quite as full of cat-itude, which he’d possessed in abundance, after she left us.

Then, on March 18, I had to put three-year-old Hobbesie, whom I’d written about last year – we officially named him Hobbit for his love of multiple meals – to sleep. He had occasional flare-ups of chronic pancreatitis. But a recent recurrence which didn’t improve turned out to be, after more tests, congestive heart failure. Hobbesie had so much fluid in his chest that it was difficult to even see his heart on the x-ray. Truth be told, I think his heart broke on Jan. 11 when we lost Graycie, and little by little his tears seeped out from that wound until they simply consumed him.

Hobbesie was rushed into the back of the hospital when I brought him to the veterinary emergency room that night, because his breathing was so labored; he needed oxygen. Then two very friendly vet assistants came into the exam room to talk with me, to get a history, to reassure me that they’d do their very best for him. One of them had worked previously at our vet's office and knew Hobbesie. She knew that he wasn't himself - he wasn't flirting, he wasn't showing off how handsome he was. My poor baby was so sick.

The other woman smiled at me and told me she enjoys reading my page. It was such a sweet thing to say, completely unexpected, and a kindness that I desperately needed at that moment. After they left the room, I could hear the one saying to her co-worker, ”If you read her, she’s hilarious.” That may be one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.

But once I went home alone that night, without Hobbesie, how could I find any hilarity or even a smile? We’d lost two beloved pussycats in only two months.

Well, I found comfort with food, of course ... and not just eating it.

Thirteen hours after leaving the veterinary hospital, I was a judge at the Mobile Meals Great Chili Cook-Off, supporting a cause that is so very dear to me: feeding people, especially ones who are vulnerable. Those at the event who knew about Hobbesie’s death, having read his obituary (not just an announcement) on my Facebook page, offered hugs and condolences. Others who didn’t know offered distraction, as I tried not to say anything unless directly asked how I was; I couldn’t lie, after all, and say ”I’m doing great, thanks!”

Sampling 31 (that’s not a typo) different kinds of chili, chatting about the tastes and textures, debating with fellow judges whether a New Mexico-style green chili really constituted chili because it’s so different from their expected Midwestern-style beans-’n’-meat variety ... this was all good. Focus on the food. It’ll be okay for a little while.

I also got to try two of Toft Dairy’s new flavors for this summer: Peanut Butter Cheesecake and Salty Caramel Fudge Truffle. Ice cream makes everything seem better, doesn’t it? Oh, yes. Yes, it certainly does.

The next day I baked, doing some recipe testing. I had to pay attention to what I was doing. I had to sample the wares, too – quality control, you know. If I was thinking about the food I wasn’t sobbing, overwhelmed by the losses of Hobbesie and Graycie. It worked, as long as I stayed busy. I baked three kinds of cookies and a lemon meringue pie.

And thus, the term ”comfort food” took on new connotations for me, that very sad weekend.



Friday, March 4, 2016

Vegan Week - Day 5 (The Finale)


Mexican-Inspired Salad.

Well, today was the last day of my being a vegan lab rat, a plant-based diet guinea pig.

I brought a tote-able breakfast of applesauce and trail mix (almonds, walnuts, berry-flax granola, dairy-free dark chocolate chips, and dried cran- and blueberries) to work. It was quick, it was easy, it was good. It was really good. As someone who has a tendency to graze, it was a perfect snack.

Trail mix and applesauce.

For lunch, I'd made some Italian-style vegetable soup filled with lots of wholesome vegetables: mushrooms, onions, zucchini, tomato, carrots, celery. To go with it, a couple of slices of the ciabatta loaf were easily packed up. But since I had such a late breakfast, eating at work rather than at home, I wasn't actually hungry for the soup before I left to go on my Friday afternoon schlep through Kroger.

Italian-Style Vegetable Soup.

As I'd reviewed my groceries and my menu options before heading out for the day, I wasn't sure what I was going to do about dinner. Then my friend Olivia posted a picture of a salad on Facebook, filled with avocado, corn, lettuce, tomatoes ... all items I had on hand! She and I both planned to make this tonight.

Sure, the original salad contained chicken; but I could simply leave that out. So, I set out all the ingredients around a scoop of the leftover beans from Monday night, drizzled salsa over everything, and enjoyed an exceptionally nice dinner. A few crumbled corn chips on top didn't hurt, either ... :)

So ... my thoughts after five days as a vegan?

First and foremost, I'm looking forward to eating cheese. I want parmesan on my pasta, feta on my spinach, cheddar on many, many things. I want to be able to use eggs again. I want my Coffee-Mate, which offers no redeeming nutritional value along with the richness of cream.

It seems as though I've been snacking more, as though I'm feeling some sort of loss on a cellular level. It's not as though I've deprived myself of calories or protein or fats or sugars or anything else fun. But there must be some sort of recalibration going on. Ordinarily, if I have a big lunch then I only need a salad for dinner. I found myself still nibbling beyond that, though.

Of course, we can thank the Fritos and the faux-reos for that, singing their Siren songs to me in the night. I bought them so I wouldn't feel deprivation, to be able to have treats and not just denial, to show everyone that a vegan diet doesn't have to be just about rice, beans, lettuce, and tofu. But it's so much easier to resist that kind of stuff at the store, rather than at home! I usually don't buy those things, when I'm on my own. I know I'm weak. I proved that once again, these past few days.

I do think I'll be a mostly-vegetarian after this. My personal feeling is that cows are producing milk, chickens are laying eggs, and bees are making honey whether we eat and drink those products or not. As long as the animals are treated humanely, living happy lives, then those items should be a part of our diets. Veganism is simply too extreme, and unnecessarily so.

And while one might adopt a vegan diet for health reasons, bulking up on fruits and vegetables and whole grains, that gets very boring very quickly (for me, anyway, as someone who constantly craves variety). And it's also potentially expensive. I could have special-ordered vegan "cheese" from L.A., and "meat" from Minneapolis. I could have gone to various markets and restaurants around Toledo to get vegan dishes. I could have made "cheese" from cashews.

Really, that's just excessive. Be conscientious about what you eat - for political, ethical, moral, health, financial, and other reasons - but exercise moderation.

The thought of eating some chicken that's in the freezer, though ... I'm not so keen on it. Or the sausage that I'd intended to use in making red beans and rice on Monday.

The seed for this week's experiment was planted at an event a few weeks ago: braised veal cheeks were on the menu.

I was uncomfortable as they were presented to me, even as they smelled divine and were tender enough to melt on the fork. I tasted them, out of politeness (and for work); they were wonderful. I felt guilty.

And yet, I'm debating whether to grab a burger this weekend. How is it that I can eat the mother but was uncomfortable when the baby was on my plate? Because I knew which part of him I was chewing on? Because I buy the mother wrapped in plastic, displayed on styrofoam?

Once again, as I've done many times before, I'm hanging my head in shame and disgust as a hypocrite. I admit it, though not proudly. It is something I ruminate about, contemplate, grapple with, discuss, and consider at great length and with great frequency.

While I don't want to say I'm ruling out meat - or that burger - entirely (especially since I'll be judging a chili cook-off in two weeks, and there are only two or three vegetarian options being served), I can see myself becoming more of a vegetarian. Not that I eat meat all the time, but I can certainly feel comfortable eating it even less frequently now. Until temptation, like barbecued ribs, lures me in, I'm sure.

So, after all the thought and planning I put into Vegan Week's menu - and I probably have another two weeks' worth of meal suggestions that didn't get eaten - I have no idea what I'll have for breakfast tomorrow morning. It may be more Elvis-style oatmeal. It may be bacon and eggs. I might even go all-out and have a steak, which is usually a once-in-a-decade option.

The point is that I'll have a choice. I'll have lots of choices, rather than having entire food groups eliminated and having so many options taken away from me (or, more correctly, taking them away from myself).

Vegan Week was definitely a worthwhile experiment. It fed me, my blog, and also my column for this Tuesday. And it offered food for thought.

But now it's time to go back to eating whatever I want whenever I want. Time to go back to being an omnivore ... except for tofu and sushi!


Italian-Style Vegetable Soup

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1 garlic clove, minced
2 large mushrooms, caps removed, sliced
1/3 cup sliced zucchini
1 small stalk celery, chopped
1 small carrot, peeled, chopped
1 scallion, chopped
A very generous splash of red wine
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
A generous handful of baby spinach
1/2 cup water
Pinch of sugar
Italian seasoning

Place the oil into a medium saucepan and heat over medium-high heat with the red pepper flakes. Add onion, garlic, and mushrooms; cook for 2 minutes, until mushrooms are softening. Add zucchini, celery, carrot, and scallion; cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add wine, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, spinach, water, sugar, and Italian seasoning; bring just to a boil, then cover partially and lower heat to simmer. Cook for 30 minutes.

Yield: 2 to 4 servings
Source: Mary Bilyeu


Mexican-Inspired Salad

Oil
Corn kernels
Shredded lettuce
Chopped avocado
Cherry tomatoes, halved
Chopped red onion
Leftover Pinto Beans with Rice and Quinoa
Fresh salsa
Sprinkle of cilantro
Corn chips, crushed

Quantities are variable, based upon number of people being served and ingredient preferences.

Place the oil and the corn into a small skillet; stir together. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until corn is toasted and golden.

Place lettuce on a serving plate. Place corn, avocado, tomatoes, and onion around the circumference of the plate, on top of the lettuce. Place the leftover beans in the center of the plate. Drizzle salsa over the salad, then sprinkle with cilantro and the crushed corn chips.

Source: Mary Bilyeu (Adapted from cleanfoodcrush.com)


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Vegan Week - Day 4


Squash soup with ciabatta toasts.

Well, it wasn't the most exciting start to the day's menu, but breakfast was a simple 'n' sweet pb&j (the "j" was raspberry jam) with a side of applesauce. Some protein, some fruit, something substantial to last the morning.

I had a lunch meeting today with my friend Carolyn, whom I've known practically since I arrived in town two years ago, and my new friend Whitney; we were discussing the upcoming Mobile Meals Chili Cook-Off, so I can write a preview story about the event. We'd originally picked a different place, but then I blundered into this little vegan adventure. So we switched to Grumpy's precisely so I could order a very specific menu item: the Homemade Sweet Potato Vegan Burger.

Homemade Sweet Potato Vegan Burger at Grumpy's in Toledo.

The burger was huge, and the avocado made it slippery, but it tasted good! And avocado, of course, contains the so-called "good" fats. This was fun food, rather than the sterile stereotype of vegan fare.

Personally, I'd have served regular ol' potato chips instead of the kale chips, since they'd be vegan if they only had potatoes, oil, and salt. (Or, even better, salt and freshly ground black pepper ... ooh!) Please note that this is not a criticism of Grumpy's, which I love; rather, it is an indictment of kale. I can eat it, though when it's made into chips it reminds me of little wisps of burnt paper floating away from a bonfire. Kale chips ... potato chips. Which would you choose???

Having had such a generous lunch (of course, I ate the garlicky dill pickle, too!), I only needed a light dinner. So I made a squash soup with a splash of hard apple cider, and I served it with a couple of lightly-toasted ciabatta toasts.

Dessert was one I'd anticipated all week, but had to wait for. Craig eats bananas when they've still got some green on them, when they're not even ripe. I eat them when they're just starting to speckle. I cook with them when they've got a few more spots, and I bake with them when they're close to mush.

Bourbon and Brown Sugar Bananas with Toasted Coconut.

So, to get a better caramelization, I couldn't make this dish until the bananas had reached the perfect point of ripeness ... and today was the day! (This dessert was going to be my reward, last night, for filing Tuesday's feature story for the Food page; but it was better to wait 'til today, to make dinner seem less sparse.)

A pat of butter substitute, a splash of bourbon, a sprinkle of brown sugar, and some crispy toasted coconut - such simple ingredients, but such fabulous flavors to pair with the fruit! And don't forget the chocolate syrup which, believe it or not, is vegan. Not a speck of milk or whey or any other dairy product to be found!

So, the lesson for today is this: you don't need to eat anything elaborate, sophisticated, or complicated to enjoy good food. And you can still eat hearty food and sweet treats while eating as a vegan.


Squash Soup with Ciabatta Toasts

1 12-ounce package frozen squash
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup hard apple cider
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 slices ciabatta bread
Earth Balance butter substitute

Place the squash, stock, cider, applesauce, salt, and pepper into a medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir until squash is defrosted and soup is thoroughly heated.

Toast the bread, then spread with butter substitute.

Yield: 2 servings
Source: Mary Bilyeu


Bourbon and Brown Sugar Bananas with Toasted Coconut

2 tablespoons shredded coconut
1/2 tablespoon Earth Balance butter substitute
2 tablespoons bourbon
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 large banana
Chocolate syrup

Toast the coconut over low heat in a small skillet until just golden; set aside.

In the same skillet, melt the butter substitute, bourbon, and brown sugar together over medium-low heat. Slice the banana in half cross-wise, then slice each piece in half vertically. Place the banana pieces into the skillet and cook briefly on each side, just until golden.

Place the banana onto a serving plate, being sure to pour the caramelized syrup from the skillet over the fruit. Drizzle with syrup, then top with coconut.

Yield: 1 serving
Source: Mary Bilyeu


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Vegan Week - Day 3

 
Fruit plate: Cara Cara oranges, prunes, dried cranberries, and toasted walnuts drizzled with pomegranate molasses.

I made some progress with the morning adventure: trying to drink tolerable coffee. I combined the vanilla soy creamer with a splash of the insipid caramel almond creamer, and it was not bad. It wasn't my usual rich vanilla bourbon pound cake-flavored Coffee-Mate-infused coffee. But we had definite improvement today!

Being a vegan doesn't necessarily mean you're eating health food - remember, the Fritos and mint faux-reos are vegan. Just as vegetarians can still be eating mac 'n' cheese and fried ice cream, while omnivores might be carefully eating lean proteins and salads, it's all about the choices you make.

And I've been choosing to eat Fritos and faux-reos a) because I like them, and b) likely as a bit of compensation for all the foods I'm currently depriving myself of, like cheese. I miss cheese. I haven't eaten pasta yet, despite it being on my "to do" list, because the thought of not even sprinkling a bit of parmesan on top of it is just kinda heart-breaking.

Now, this is my own personal little experiment and I could change the terms of my mission: I could allow the Coffee-Mate, with its bit of cream, or the parmesan. My personal feeling is that cows are producing milk, chickens are laying eggs, and bees are making honey no matter what; there's no reason not to eat these products, though you'd certainly want to be conscientious about the animals' living conditions and happiness. However, this particular lab rat is very goal-oriented and disciplined when she has to be, so I'm stickin' with it. I set the plan in motion - vegan, pure and simple - and will see it through.

And that means no cheese. Whimper ... :(

So, anyway .... Instead of lots of carbs like oatmeal or rice or noodles or muffins - which seem to have dominated my meals these past two days - for breakfast I ate a simple fruit plate: Cara Cara oranges, which I love, topped with prunes, dried cranberries, toasted walnuts, and a drizzle of my beloved pomegranate molasses. This is an integral ingredient in Middle Eastern and Persian dishes. It is sweet and tart and a fabulous condiment - go get some! Use it in salad dressings, sauces, as a glaze, or even just dribbled into club soda. Do it. You'll thank me!

Fennel slaw, assorted olives, baguette spread with Earth Balance butter substitute.

After today's photo shoot (three different menu options I couldn't eat!), my kitchen was its usual disaster of dishes and bowls and scraps and mess. By the time I got that cleaned up and threw a load of laundry in, I just made a simple lunch: the last of the olives, some more of the fennel slaw, and a chunk of good bread spread with Earth Balance butter substitute. (It has a kinda grey-ish aura to it, but tastes pretty good.) Nothing glamorous, but nice nonetheless.

Chocolate Banana Almond Milk Shake

For a snack mid-afternoon, as I typed with three stories due tomorrow (and needing a few more details before I can file two of them), I made a milkshake: banana, chocolate almond milk-based ice cream (which is so dark and chocolaty!), and vanilla almond milk. This, I have to say, was really, really good! Not a compromise at all ... :)

Chopped salad with toasted pita chips.

Still trying to finish Tuesday's feature story for the Food page, I just made a simple Israeli-style chopped salad for dinner. Chop lots of vegetables - in this case, carrots, cucumber, celery, broccoli, tomato, and red onion - in small pieces ... that's it. I thought about sprinkling it with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, but decided instead to use Garlic Expressions salad dressing, made in Perrysburg (which is just outside Toledo).

If I get my story filed tonight (please, please, please!), I'll reward myself with a dessert. I'll include that in tomorrow's post ....


Chocolate Banana Almond Milk Shake

1 banana
1 generous scoop chocolate-flavored So Delicious almond milk non-dairy frozen dessert
Generous splash of Silk caramel-flavored almond milk creamer
Vanilla-flavored almond milk

Place the banana and the ice cream into the blender. Pour in a splash of creamer, then pour in enough almond milk to reach half-way up the banana and ice cream. Blend, drink, enjoy.

Yield: 1 serving
Source: Mary Bilyeu




Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Vegan Week - Day 2



Ramen with carrots, mushrooms, pea pods, broccoli, red and green onions, some chile garlic sauce, and toasted peanuts and sesame seeds.

Well, another day as a vegan!

I still don't like the almond milk coffee creamer, though it was a bit more tolerable this morning. So, while I was at the grocery store to get supplies for tomorrow's photo shoot (for next Tuesday's lead story on the Food page), I looked for coconut milk creamer but couldn't find it; I settled for a soy milk creamer, which I don't have a lot of hope for. But it's not good to start the day with bad coffee ... bleah! This is a work in progress ... or an opportunity for an entrepreneur.

Applesauce muffins and a banana.

For breakfast, I had a banana and an applesauce muffin. Craig had tried one of the muffins yesterday, before leaving, and even said he liked it ... wow! Instead of an egg for protein and structure, I used 1/4 cup silken tofu. The muffins baked up beautifully ... :)

Now, tofu, to my mind, is not food. I've tried marinating it, searing it, chopping it, tasting it in various Asian restaurants, and virtually every other means of dealing with it. And you know what it tastes like? Vomit. Truly. No matter what, unless I simply bury it under chocolate or peanut butter or cinnamon or some other strong flavor. But tofu works perfectly as an egg replacement in baked goods - let's celebrate that, and not employ it for any of its lesser uses. (Your amusement du jour: Craig actually likes tofu! What is it with his taste buds?!?!?)

Fennel Slaw and French fries.

Like yesterday, lunch included a salad: Fennel Slaw, which is one of my very favorites. Lots of crispness and crunchiness, with just a hint of that famous (infamous?) licorice/anise flavor. Because I had prep work to do for tomorrow's photos, I didn't feel like chopping or stirring or sautéing or anything that required much involvement on my part. So I just made a very simple accompaniment for the slaw: a handful of extra-crispy french fries, sprinkled with a touch of salt and an equal touch of Old Bay seasoning.

(Aside: I want some credit for doing a non-vegan photo shoot tomorrow! I could've given y'all tofu, wheatgrass, and other such fare, rather than the omnivore fest that will be of greater interest. As Spock says, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Even if the one is the one who has to prepare the food.)

Then, after eating the fennel and cabbage and onions, I did my breath - and, thus, the pussycats - a favor and ate a few of the generic mint faux-reos which may be my new favorite junk food. (They're double-stuffed, which is gross and excessive in traditional Oreos, but is perfect for the ones with the minty filling!)

On a chilly, dreary, rainy, snowy, icy "March comes in like a lion" evening, a nice hot dinner was the perfect comfort. Ramen. A huge bowl of it, loaded with carrots, mushrooms, pea pods, broccoli, red and green onions, some chile garlic sauce, and toasted peanuts and sesame seeds.

And there will likely be more faux-reos in my future, this evening ... :)


Applesauce Muffins

1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/8 cup silken tofu
1/2 cup vanilla almond milk
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
Pinch of kosher salt
1/8 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon + 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
1 tablespoon ground flax seed
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons sugar

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together applesauce, tofu, and almond milk until smooth. Add flours, salt, brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, flax seed, and walnuts. Stir until combined.

Divide batter among the lined muffin cups. Stir together sugar and remaining 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon; sprinkle over muffins, then bake for 20 to 25 minutes until muffins feel set when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Yield: 12 muffins
Source: Mary Bilyeu


Fennel Slaw

1 small fennel bulb
4 cups shredded green cabbage
1/2 small red onion, halved, sliced thin
1 teaspoon sugar
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons oil
Pinch of kosher salt
Generous pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Trim stalks, fronds, and root end from the fennel. Slice remaining bulb in half, then slice thin; place into a large mixing bowl along with the cabbage and onion.

Combine sugar, vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper; pour over vegetables and mix. Let rest for 30 minutes or, preferably, several hours for the flavors to blend.

Yield: 8 servings
Source: Mary Bilyeu


Vegetable and Peanut Ramen

1 teaspoon sesame oil
Few mushrooms, sliced
Few pea pods
1 thin slice red onion, halved
Few broccoli florets
1 small carrot, peeled, sliced thin
1 small stalk of celery, sliced thin
1 large scallion, root end trimmed, sliced thin
Vegetable broth
2 tablespoons peanut sauce
1/2 teaspoon chile garlic sauce
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 package ramen noodles, seasoning packet discarded
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
Handful of chopped peanuts, toasted

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat; add mushrooms and sauté briefly. Add pea pods, red onion, broccoli, carrot, celery, and white part of scallion; cook for 1 minute. Pour in broth to cover vegetables by 1 inch. Stir in sauces and add noodles. Bring to a boil and cook 3 minutes, until noodles are just done.

Pour everything into a deep bowl and sprinkle with sesame seeds, peanuts, and green parts of the scallion.

Yield: 1 generous serving.
Source: Mary Bilyeu.


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